Sean Brock pours some broth over a pile of calf's head meat
“We just got punched in the face by the classics” — so said one of my dining companions at the conclusion of our meal at the new McCrady’s Tavern just the other night.
That dining companion happened to be Dan Latimer, a founding brother of the Charleston Brown Water Society and a former employee of the Neighborhood Dining Group, which owns McCrady’s, Husk, and Minero. I had asked him to come along so I could pick his brain about the path of Sean Brock, a chef who’s been on the bleeding edge of culinary trends for the last decade or so. As the manager of Husk and then the operations manager for NDG, Latimer has spent plenty of time working alongside Brock to have some insight on the Beard-award winning chef. What does this reinvention of McCrady’s portend? What can we glean from Brock’s latest foray into tavern fare? And what about the new McCrady’s, which promises tasting menus from the man himself?
Since Husk opened in 2010, McCrady’s had been left in the very capable hands of first Chef de Cuisine Jeremiah Langhorne, who’s since opened the critical darling The Dabney in D.C., and then Daniel Heinze, who recently left McCrady’s to pursue a new path, ostensibly far away from tavern fare. The talent at McCrady’s freed Brock up to open a Husk in Nashville, two Mineros, and plans to open even more Husks in Savannah and Greenville.
Unfortunately, I missed joining Latimer and some of McCrady’s faithful friends for the last reservation on the night of July 30, when, at the conclusion of their meal, the dining room was emptied of its furniture, and renovations commenced the next day. By all accounts it was a dazzling experience as Brock and team relived the heady days of 2006 molecular gastronomy. (Listen to Hanna Raskin and Robert Moss over at the Post and Courier
podcast The Winnow
for some insight into that last meal.)
I remember vividly the McCrady’s of 2006 and can’t say I was feeling all that nostalgic for it. My son might have a different perspective, though. As a mere lad, he was an early acolyte of Brock, who won him over at an event when he squeezed a bottle of liquid that transformed into a squiggly pile of noodles as it hit a bowl of hot chicken stock. From there, Jack — at the tender age of 8 — escorted me and my mother to the restaurant for a birthday tasting menu.
A few years later, to mark his entree into teenager-dom, he once again requested a tasting menu at McCrady’s and dined with my father, who had also been dazzled by Brock’s theatrical flair. At one dinner, Brock delivered our table a round of wicked hot salt rocks with some fresh fish and instructions to sear it on the rock — carefully — before dunking it in a sauce and eating it. When Brock was in the kitchen, McCrady’s was always interesting and fun, like the time he served a fish dish on a plate of smoking hay and liquid nitrogen. Back then, I saw Brock as a chef who always swung for the fences. Some dishes might not be home runs, but he was always going for it and you had to respect that.
Over the years, Charleston has been witness to Brock’s maturation as a chef. He went from being somewhat of a punk who refused to ever serve shrimp and grits at his restaurant to being a culinary history nut who not only serves shrimp and grits but is hellbent on perfecting it. (I had his masa version at Minero the other day and am happy to see him still riffing on this timeless partnership of shellfish and corn grains.)
So what is he doing now? Why shut down McCrady’s and completely reinvent it? What does it mean when a chef who runs in the rarefied world of Rene Redzepis and David Changs decides to dismantle the flagship?
Well, it means we all stop what we’re doing and check it out. On Wednesday night, it was a veritable who’s who of the local food scene inside McCrady’s Tavern, from a Beard Award-wining chef to a local food editor and plenty of F&Bers in between.
The space itself has been miraculously transformed simply by removing the wooden booths that had been built into the brick arches of the old building. The once-staid dining room seems huge and lively now. Rock music plays in the background, and waiters wear white coats with blue jeans.
The menu is dedicated to throwback decadence: calf’s head soup, Oysters McCrady (a riff on Oysters Rockefeller), foie gras and chicken liver parfait with onion toast, escargot stuffed marrow bone (!), beef tartare with onion puffs.
“This is the kind of stuff you see served on silver platters,” said Latimer. But instead, the food gets a Brockian twist — the chicken liver parfait comes in a can looking like cat food — right down to the little slick of jelly on top of the meat. Tater tots are the vehicle delivery system for paddlefish caviar. Funyun-like onion puffs provide the same service to a classic pile of beef tartare. Brock's fingerprints (and sense of humor) are all over every menu item.
Can you spot the can o' chicken liver parfait
"Sean gets to travel a lot," noted Latimer, "and I noticed when traveling with him that when chefs go out in other cities, they're tired of the casual trend — the same restaurant, different city — and instead they're seeking out classic places like steakhouses."
Does that mean the casual dining trend is over? A victim of the same kind of homogeneity that turned TGI Fridays from an exciting New York singles bar into a chain of mediocre family restaurants? (Read this Jezebel story now for a great look at restaurant trends and the inevitability of becoming uncool: "Please Explain to Me How the Current Reclaimed Wood Craze isn't the Same as TGI Friday's"
Latimer thinks it's finished. "Charleston used to be at least five to 10 years behind everybody else, but we're getting [this] now because we're saturated with the same type of restaurant." Restaurateurs are moving to town and bringing us more of what we already have rather than anything new.
"We can't be Disney Charleston," said Latimer after maybe one too many glasses of wine. "We need to be Epcot Charleston." This sounded brilliant at the time. Do you want B'rer Rabbit's Splash Mountain or Chiquita Banana's Living with the Land ride? Er, well. Maybe that metaphor doesn't hold up.
Another point from Latimer: "Watch Top Chef
and cooking competitions and they're always saying more acid, more salt. Well, you can only do so much with acid and salt. Now we're getting back to fat for flavor."
And there was plenty of fat on display, from the plump french fries and the cheesy burger (stuffed with bearnaise) to the buttery onion toast and the escargots stuffed marrow bone. It was a rich meal that definitely punched us in the face.
The escargot are stuffed down the center of the marrow bone
Perhaps the most important element of the McCrady's reboot isn't what's on the menu at the Tavern but what will be on the menu at the new McCrady's. The new space will take over the old Minero with seating for 22. Brock says he will be the one in charge of the menu, which seems to say that Brock is ready to stay in the kitchen for a while and do what he does best — blow minds with his food.